Dot, Star, Key, Rainbow . . .

By Jheri St. James

The Republic of Mauritius is an island nation in the southwest Indian Ocean, about 900 km east of Madagascar. In addition to the island of Mauritius, the republic includes the islands of St. Brandon and Rodrigues and the Agalega Islands. Mauritius is part of the Mascarene Islands, with the French island of Réunion 200 km to the southwest.

“The Star and Key of the Indian Ocean” is the translation of Mauritius’ national motto (Stella Clavisque Maris Indici). Mauritius on the globe is a tiny dot in the vast blue ocean, reminiscent of a star in the infinitely blue sky. Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator: “You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius.”

Heaven is multicultural and so is Mauritius. People from India, Africa Madagascar, France, China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Arabia and a few other places thrive there. Communication behind the pearly gates might be telepathic, but in Mauritius the official language is English, with French following, and the national lingua franca a French/English Creole dialect. One also hears Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Gujarati During British rule, laborers were brought from India and this race today constitutes 70 percent of the population, while the rest are of either African, French, Chinese or mixed descent. Hindus constitute 52% of the religious faiths, while the remainder is composed mostly of Christians (28%) and Muslims (17%), Buddhists, Sikhs and other religions. Mauritius is a rainbow!

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As a volunteer in this project I was thinking about ‘earth and soil’ and what it symbolises and here are my thoughts: Significant soil doesn’t have to be wrought in political drama, bloodshed, war; it can just be about beauty. The Earth here for me at Chamarel symbolizes a journey of upheaval to foreign soil, it’s a yin and yang of faith leading a rocky road to happiness. If you find yourself in a country or place with different people, religions, skin colours, languages, where you feel lost and unbalanced, when you can’t feel a connection to the people . . . I say take a good look at the unfamiliar scenery around you, get down on your hands and knees and feel not just the earth but 'The Earth,' 'The Mother' who is always there wherever you go. Close your eyes to the sights you can’t connect with and open your heart so you can truly see the love and the world in those around you.
Liz McDonough

Geologists are intrigued by the rolling dunes of the multi-colored, lunar-like landscape at Chamarel. The colors—red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow—never erode in spite of torrential downpours and adverse climatic conditions. The phenomenon has never been explained but it is believed the soil is composed of mineral rich volcanic ash. The colored earth of Chamarel was promoted as Mauritius’ first tourist attraction back in the 1960’s. Even today souvenir test tubes containing the multi-colored earth can be bought from beach vendors and tourist boutiques. Also stunning in the region are the 272 ft. high Cascade Chamarel waterfalls from the River St. Denis in the Black River Mountains, which plunge seaward to form the River du Cap.

The rainbow of diversity it not limited to people, languages, religions, and soil colors in Mauritius. Marine life is enormously diverse in this star-dot island nation, which boasts a huge range of sea treasures and infinite wealth. The Mauritian coastline never fails to surprise: multi-colored fish, moray eels, magnificent coral beds. Here is a small sampling of pictures.

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How did such a colorful polyglot of life forms ever come together? While Arab and Malay sailors knew of Mauritius as early as the 10th century and Portuguese sailors first visited it in 1505, the island remained uninhabited until 1638, when it was colonized by the Dutch. They named the island in honor of Prince Maurice of Nassau. Due to climate changes, cyclones and the deterioration of the settlement, the Dutch abandoned the island some decades later. The French controlled the island during the 18th century and named it Ile de France (French Island). Despite winning the famous battle of Grand-Port, the French were defeated by the British in the north of the island a month later, and thus lost possession to the British in 1810 and the latter reverted the island to its former name. Independence was attained in 1968, with the country becoming a republic within the Commonwealth in 1992. Mauritius has been a stable democracy with regular free elections and a positive human rights record, and has attracted considerable foreign investment, earning one of Africa’s highest per capital incomes.

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Dear Gary, Happy New Year; I do hope you received the soil okay. Here are the photos of the area the soil was taken from. . . AMAZING isn’t it!! Chamarel 7 Coloured Earth to me looks like a huge sleeping dragon; it doesn’t look like soil. As you can see it looks like something else. The earth is coloured due to the minerals in the earth separating when it settled here all those years ago when Mauritius was made from a volcano and before the Dodo even existed here!! (do’do) n. -does or -dos. 1. A large clumsy flightless bird Raphus cucullatus) formerly of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and extinct since the late 17th century. 2. Informal. One who is hopelessly passé. 3. Informal. A stupid person; an idiot.

The Dodo bird was turkey sized with strong legs and a big bill. The last Dodo died around 1681, but a few stuffed birds and skeletons can be seen in museums. The Dodo may be more renowned now than ever. Mauritius’ coat of arms features a rendition of the Dodo and, “On December 23, 2005, a Dutch-Mauritian research team announced the discovery of Dodo remains dating back at least 2,000 years. The fossil material was excavated in Mare aux Songes, a low-lying swamp area in the dry southeastern part of the island, on land owned by MTMD sugar cane plantation. Portuguese sailors in the 16th century first brought attention to this famous bird, its lack of fear of humans, its plump size and its inability to fly, which seems to have brought about its quick demise once Western man landed on the island.

“Approximately 80 sq. ft. have been excavated so far and more than 700 bones have been recovered in which several Dodo bones, including remains of Dodo chicks and a very rare part of the bird’s beak, of which only a few are known to exist in the entire world. The rare find will enable researchers to discover more about what happened to the bird. An international team is being assembled in order that an accurate, systematic study of the site can be performed and a study to reconstruct the world in which the Dodo lived before it was wiped out by sailors and settlers from the West. The last time Dodo remains were found was in 1920. The word ‘dodo’ is similar to the Portuguese word for fool. Labeled with this unsuitable tag, it seems the Dodo just won’t lie down until it has taught us all a thing or two and re-educated us that the real fools are the ones who have deprived the world of its unique presence.” (taken from Mauritius News, January 2006).

The Dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for. Will Cuppy (1884-1949).

Is the loss of the Dodo bird the price Mauritius paid for its success in peaceful living today? With a life expectancy of 72 years, a very low AIDS rate, and steady development from a low-income, agriculturally based economy to a middle-income diversified economy with growing industrial, financial, and tourist sectors, Mauritius can be proud of its achievements, even as it grieves the loss of the Dodo bird. Annual growth has been in the order of 5% to 6%. This remarkable rise has been reflected in more equitable income distribution, increased life expectancy, lowered infant morality, and a much-improved infrastructure. Sugar cane is grown on about 90% of the cultivated land area and accounts for 25% of export earnings. The government’s development strategy centers on expanding local financial institutions and building a domestic information telecommunications industry. Mauritius has attracted more than 9,000 offshore entities, many aimed at commerce in India and South Africa, and investment in the banking sector alone has reached over $1 billion. Mauritius, with its strong textile sector, has been well poised to take advantage of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). “Corruption levels are relatively low and the government appears generally to be committed to regulating its banking industry,” says the CIA World Fact Book. Not many countries can make that statement. Mauritius really does seem to have the key to successful life on earth; no dodos here.

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There is much to celebrate in music and dance at the rainbow of festivals in Mauritius. As with every other facet of this tiny land, diversity is the key. Being a blend of diverse cultures and religions, which the immigrant population brought from their ancestral countries, their festivities are celebrated in a spirit of peace and harmony throughout the year.

The sega, a dance invented by Mauritians of African origin, has become synonymous with joie de vivre. Mainly based on African music originating with slaves, it is nowadays played with modern instruments and features contemporary musical influences. Sega is an evolved form of polka and quadrilles from Europe fused with local rhythms and instruments. The slaves obviously began dancing the sega to forget their miserable existence. There are now several types of sega in Mauritius. Standard sega (where the instruments are the ravanne, the maravanne and the triangle) has its own disciples and devotees. Modern sega frequently includes influences from zouk, reggae, soukous and other Latin American music styles. Seggae, a blend of reggae and sega was born in Port Louis, the capitol of Mauritius, among the Rastafarians in the 1980’s. Indian and Chinese immigrants have brought many of their own styles of music and dance, and instruments like the sitar (strings) and tabla (drum). The rubbing of feet, the swaying of hips and Creole lyrics are part and parcel of the music.

A short list and photos of some of the festivals of Mauritius follows:

Cavadi - This festival is celebrated in January/February. Bodies are pierced with needles, tongues and cheeks with pins, devotees in a trance carry the ‘Cavadi’ on their shoulders as a penitence. The ‘Cavadi’ is a wooden arch, covered with flowers and with a pot of milk at each end.

Divali - The Festival of Lights is celebrated in a spirit of pure joy, in the month of October or November. Small clay lamps line the walls, balconies and yards. They are lit at sunset. Their golden flickering starlight, which is believed to guide the Goddess of wealth and good fortune, can be seen everywhere. Divali represents the victory of truth (light) over ignorance (darkness). The Festival of Lights, Divali, is a celebration of joy, happiness and for many Mauritians, a time for sharing.

Father Laval - Every September 9, Mauritians of all faiths walk or drive towards the tomb of the Blessed Jacques Désiré Laval, the “Apostle of the Black People” at Ste-Croix, Port- Louis. The belief in Père Laval, to whom powers of healing are attributed, reminds us of the Lourdes Pilgrimage in France.

Ganesh Chaturthi - Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated on the 4th day of the lunar month of August/September by Hindus in honour of the birth of Ganesha, God of wisdom.
Holi - This Hindu festival is as colourful as the many legends from which it originates. It is above all a festival of joy during which men and women throw coloured water and powder on each other and wish one another good luck.

Id-El-Fitr - The Id-El-Fitr festival signals the end of the Ramadan - the fasting
period for Muslim people. Prayers are said in mosques all day long.

Ougadi - Ougadi is the Telugu New Year and is usually celebrated in March.

Spring Festival - The Chinese New Year is celebrated each year on a different date, owing to the differences between the lunar and the solar calendars. Houses are thoroughly cleaned before the festival. No knife or scissors are used on the actual day of the festival. Red, a symbol of happiness is the main colour of the day. Food offerings are made to ensure that the following year will be plentiful and traditional ‘Wax’ cakes are distributed to parents and friends. Firecrackers are set off in the heavens to drive away the evil spirits.

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Thanks to Elizabeth McDonough, the soil collector in Mauritius whose motto is” “Not today, nor tomorrow, or the next, that we believe about today, that we lived yesterday…” ( ). Your celebration of our project enhances its spirit. Common Ground 191 is proud and happy to have Mauritius’ beautiful rainbow soil for our project. Rainbows are the artwork of heaven after all and now, we discover, exist even in dirt. But it figures; even Mauritius’ flag is a rainbow. Is it possible that the constitution of the underlying soil determines the nature of life on the surface? Perhaps this multicolored soil created the beautiful rainbow worlds on the surface and in the sea surrounding Mauritius—this tiny dot, the star and key of the Indian Ocean. Make no mistake: these small bits contain great potential—a dot can be a decimal point, a star guide the traveler, and a key can unlock a door into a new rainbow reality—perhaps all over the globe. The word for peace in Mauritius’ Creole is Lape.




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